Mr. Hargrove, soon after his arrival in the neighborhood, had had business transactions with the Cliffords, and had learned enough about them to awaken a desire for social relations, and he had courteously expressed his wishes. Maggie and Amy had fully intended compliance, but the harvest had come, time had passed, and the initial call had not been made. Leonard was averse to such formalities, and, for reasons already explained, Burt and Webb were in no mood for them. They would not have failed in neighborliness much longer, however, and a call was proposed for the first comparatively cool day. A little incident now occurred which quite broke the ice, and also somewhat disturbed Burt's serenity. Amy was not feeling very well, and he had gone out alone for a ride on his superb black horse Thunder. In a shady road some miles away, where the willows interlaced their branches overhead in a long, Gothic-like arch, he saw Miss Hargrove, mounted also, coming slowly toward him. He never forgot the picture she made under the rustic archway. Her fine horse was pacing along with a stately tread, his neck curved under the restraining bit, while she was evidently amusing herself by talking, for the want of a better companion, to an immense Newfoundland dog that was trotting at her side, and looking up to her in intelligent appreciation. Thus, in her preoccupation, Burt was permitted to draw comparatively near, but as soon as she observed him it was evidently her intention to pass rapidly. As she gave her horse the rein and he leaped forward, she clutched his mane, and by a word brought him to a standstill. Burt saw the trouble at once, for the girth of her saddle had broken, and hung loosely down. Only by prompt action and good horsemanship had she kept her seat. Now she was quite helpless, for an attempt to dismount would cause the heavy saddle to turn, with unknown and awkward results. She had recognized Burt, and knew that he was a gentleman; therefore she patted her horse and quieted him, while the young man came promptly to her assistance. He, secretly exulting over the promise of an adventure, said, suavely, as he lifted his hat:
"Miss Hargrove, will you permit me to aid you?"
"Certainly," she replied, smiling so pleasantly that the words did not seem ungracious; "I have no other resource."
He bowed, leaped lightly to the ground, and fastened his horse by the roadside; then came forward without the least embarrassment. "Your saddle-girth has broken," he said. "I fear you must dismount. Shall I lift you off? You maintained your seat admirably, but a very slight movement on your part will cause the saddle to turn."
"I know that," she replied, laughing. "Helplessness is always awkward. I am only anxious to reach ground in safety;" and she dropped the reins, and held out her hands.
"Your horse is too high for you to dismount in that way," he said, quietly, "and the saddle might fall after you and hurt you. Pardon me;" and he encircled her with his right arm, and lifted her gently off.
She blushed like the western sky, but he was so grave and apparently solicitous, and his words had made his course seem so essential, that she could not take offence. Indeed, he was now giving his whole attention to the broken girth, and she could only await the result of his examination.
"I think I can mend it with a strap from my bridle so that it will hold until you reach home," he said; "but I am sorry to say that I cannot make it very secure. Will you hold your horse a moment?"
"I am indebted to Mr. Clifford, I think," she began, hesitatingly.
"I am Mr. Clifford, and, believe me, I am wholly at your service. If you had not been so good a horsewoman you might have met with a very serious accident."
"More thanks are due to you, I imagine," she replied; "though I suppose I could have got off in some way."
"There would have been no trouble in your getting off," he said, with one of his frank, contagious smiles; "but then your horse might have run away, or you would have had to lead him some distance, at least. Perhaps it was well that the girth gave way when it did, for it would have broken in a few moments more, in any event. Therefore I hope you will tolerate one not wholly unknown to you, and permit me to be of service."
"Indeed, I have only cause for thanks. I have interfered with your ride, and am putting you to trouble."
"I was only riding for pleasure, and as yet you have had all the trouble."
She did not look excessively annoyed, and in truth was enjoying the adventure quite as much as he was, but she only said: "You have the finest horse there I ever saw. How I should like to ride him!"
"I fear he would be ungallant. He has never been ridden by a lady."
"I should not be afraid so long as the saddle remained firm. What do you call him?"
"Thunder." At the sound of his name the beautiful animal arched his neck and whinnied. "There, be quiet, old fellow, and speak when you are spoken to," Burt said. "He is comparatively gentle with me, but uncontrollable by others. I have now done my best, Miss Hargrove, and I think you may mount in safety, if you are willing to walk your horse quietly home. But I truly think I ought to accompany you, and I will do so gladly, with your permission."
"But it seems asking a great deal of-"
"Of a stranger? I wish I knew how to bring about a formal introduction. I have met your father. Will you not in the emergency defer the introduction until we arrive at your home?"
"I think we may as well dispense with it altogether," she said, laughing. "It would be too hollow a formality after the hour we must spend together, since you think so slow a pace is essential to safety. Events, not we, are to blame for all failures in etiquette."
"I was coming to call upon you this very week with the ladies of our house," he began.
"Indeed!" she said, lifting her eyebrows.
"I assure you of the truth of what I say," he continued, earnestly, turning his handsome eyes to hers. Then throwing his head back a little proudly, he added, "Miss Hargrove, you must know that we are farmers, and midsummer brings the harvest and unwonted labors."
With a slight, piquant imitation of his manner, she said: "My father, you must know, Mr. Clifford, is a merchant Is not that an equally respectable calling?"
"Some people regard it as far more so."
"Some people are very silly. There is no higher rank than that of a gentleman, Mr. Clifford."
He took off his hat, and said, laughingly: "I hope it is not presumption to imagine a slight personal bearing in your remark. At least, let me prove that I have some claim to the title by seeing you safely home. Will you mount? Put your foot in my hand, and bear your whole weight upon it, and none upon the saddle."
"You don't know how heavy I am."
"No, but I know I can lift you. Try."
Without the least effort she found herself in the saddle. "How strong you are!" she said.
"Yes," he replied, laughing; "I developed my muscle, if not my brains, at college."
In a moment he vaulted lightly upon his horse, that reared proudly, but, at a word from his master, arched his neck and paced as quietly as Miss Hargrove's better-trained animal. Burt's laugh would have thawed Mrs. Grundy's very self. He was so vital with youth and vigor, and his flow of spirits so irresistible, that Miss Hargrove found her own nerves tingling with pleasure. The episode was novel, unexpected, and promised so much for the future, that in her delightful excitement she cast conventionality to the winds, and yielded to his sportive mood. They had not gone a mile together before one would have thought they had been acquainted for years. Burt's frank face was like the open page of a book, and the experienced society girl saw nothing in it but abounding good-nature, and an enjoyment as genuine as her own. She was on the alert for traces of provincialism and rusticity, but was agreeably disappointed at their absence. He certainly was unmarked, and, to her taste, unmarred, by the artificial mode of the day, but there was nothing under-bred in his manner or language. He rather fulfilled her ideal of the light-hearted student who had brought away the air of the university without being oppressed by its learning. She saw, with a curious little blending of pique and pleasure, that he was not in the least afraid of her, and that, while claiming to be simply a farmer, he unconsciously asserted by every word and glance that he was her equal. She had the penetration to recognize from the start that she could not patronize him in the slightest degree, that he was as high-spirited as he was frank and easy in manner, and she could well imagine that his mirthful eyes would flash with anger on slight provocation. She had never met just such a type before, and every moment found her more and more interested and amused.
It must be admitted that his sensations kept pace with hers. Many had found Miss Hargrove's eyes singularly effective under ordinary circumstances, but now her mood gave them an unwonted lustre and power. Her color was high, her talk animated and piquant. Even an enemy, had she had one, would have been forced to admit that she was dazzlingly beautiful, and inflammable Burt could not be indifferent to her charms. He knew that he was not, but complacently assured himself that he was a good judge in such matters.
Mr. Hargrove met them at the door, and his daughter laughingly told him of her mishap. She evidently reposed in him the utmost confidence. He justified it by meeting her in like spirit with her own, and he interpreted her unspoken wishes by so cordially pressing Burt to remain to dinner that he was almost constrained to yield. "You will be too late for your own evening meal," he said, "and your kindness to my daughter would be ill-requited, and our reputation for hospitality would suffer, should we let you depart without taking salt with us. After all, Mr. Clifford, we are neighbors. Why should there be any formality?"
Burt was the last one to have any scruples on such grounds, and he resolved to have his "lark" out, as he mentally characterized it. Mr. Hargrove had been something of a sportsman in his earlier days, and the young fellow's talk was as interesting to him as it had been to Miss Gertrude. Fred, her younger brother, was quite captivated, and elegant Mrs. Hargrove, like her daughter, watched in vain for mannerisms to criticise in the breezy youth. The evening was half gone before Burt galloped homeward, smiling broadly to himself at the adventure.
His absence had caused little remark in the family. It had been taken for granted that he was at Dr. Marvin's or the parsonage, for the young fellow was a great favorite with their pastor. When he entered the sitting-room, however, there was a suppressed excitement in his manner which suggested an unusual experience. He was not slow in relating all that had happened, for the thought had occurred to him that it might be good policy to awaken a little jealousy in Amy. In this effort he was obliged to admit to himself that he failed signally. Even Webb's searching eyes could not detect a trace of chagrin. She only seemed very much amused, and was laughingly profuse in her congratulations to Burt. Moreover, she was genuinely interested in Miss Hargrove, and eager to make her acquaintance. "If she is as nice as you say, Burt," she concluded, "she would make a pleasant addition to our little excursions and pleasure parties. Perhaps she's old and bright enough to talk to Webb, and draw him out of his learned preoccupation," she added, with a shy glance toward the one who was growing too remote from her daily life.
Even his bronzed face flushed, but he said, with a laugh: "She is evidently much too bright for me, and would soon regard me as insufferably stupid. I have never found much favor with city dames, or with dames of any description, for that matter."
"So much the worse for the dames, then," she replied, with a piquant nod at him.
"Little sisters are apt to be partial judges—at least, one is," he said, smilingly, as he left the room. He walked out in the moonlight, thinking: "There was not a trace of jealousy in her face. Well, why should there be? Burt's perfect frankness was enough to prevent anything of the kind. If there had been cause for jealousy, he would have been reticent. Besides, Amy is too high-toned to yield readily to this vice, and Burt can never be such an idiot as to endanger his prospects."
A scheme, however, was maturing in Burt's busy brain that night, which he thought would be a master-stroke of policy. He was quite aware of the good impression that he had made on Miss Hargrove, and he determined that Amy's wishes should be carried out in a sufficient degree at least to prove to her that a city belle would not be wholly indifferent to his attentions. "I'll teach the coy little beauty that others are not so blind as she is, and I imagine that, with Miss Hargrove's aid, I can disturb her serenity a little before many weeks pass."
But a few days elapsed before Mr. Clifford, with Burt, Maggie, and Amy, made the call which would naturally inaugurate an exchange of social visits. Mr. Hargrove was especially interested in the old gentleman, and they were at once deep in rural affairs. Maggie was a little reserved at first with Mrs. Hargrove, but the latter, with all her stateliness, was a zealous housekeeper, and so the two ladies were soon en rapport.
The young people adjourned to the piazza, and their merry laughter and animated talk proved that if there had been any constraint it was vanishing rapidly. Amy was naturally a little shy at first, but Miss Hargrove had the tact to put her guests immediately at ease. She proposed to have a good time during the remainder of the summer, and saw in Burt a means to that end, while she instinctively felt that she must propitiate Amy in order to accomplish her purpose. Therefore she was disposed to pay a little court to her on general principles. She had learned that the young girl was a ward of Mr. Clifford's. What Burt was to Amy she did not know, but was sure she could soon find out, and his manner had led to the belief that he was not a committed and acknowledged lover. She made no discoveries, however, for he was not one to display a real preference in public, and indeed, in accordance with his scheme, she received his most marked attentions. Amy also both baffled and interested her. She could not immediately accept of this genuine child of nature, whose very simplicity was puzzling. It might be the perfection of well-bred reserve, such complete art as to appear artless. Miss Hargrove had been in society too long to take anything impulsively on trust. Still, she was charmed with the young girl, and Amy was also genuinely pleased with her new acquaintance. Before they parted a horseback ride was arranged, at Burt's suggestion, for the next afternoon. This was followed by visits that soon lost all formality, boating on the river, other rides, drives, and excursions to points of interest throughout the region. Webb was occasionally led to participate in these, but he usually had some excuse for remaining at home. He, also, was a new type to Miss Hargrove, "indigenous to the soil," she smilingly said to herself, "and a fine growth too. With his grave face and ways he makes a splendid contrast to his brother." She found him too reticent for good-fellowship, and he gave her the impression also that he knew too much about that which was remote from her life and interests. At the same time, with her riper experience, she speedily divined his secret, to which Amy was blind. "He could almost say his prayers to Amy," she thought, as she returned after an evening spent at the Cliffords', "and she doesn't know it."
With all his frankness, Burt's relations to Amy still baffled her. She sometimes thought she saw his eyes following the young girl with lover-like fondness, and she also thought that he was a little more pronounced in his attentions to her in Amy's absence. Acquaintanceship ripened into intimacy as plans matured under the waning suns of July, and the girls often spent the night together. Amy was soon beguiled into giving her brief, simple history, omitting, of course, all reference to Bart's passionate declaration and his subsequent expectations. As far as she herself was concerned, she had no experiences of this character to relate, and her nature was much too fine to gossip about Burt. Miss Hargrove soon accepted Amy's perfect simplicity as a charming fact, and while the young girl had all the refinement and intelligence of her city friend, the absence of certain phases of experience made her companionship all the more fascinating and refreshing. It was seen that she had grown thus far in secluded and sheltered nooks, and the ignorance that resulted was like morning dew upon a flower. Of one thing her friend thought herself assured—Burt had never touched Amy's heart, and she was as unconscious of herself as of Webb's well-hidden devotion. The Clifford family interested Miss Gertrude exceedingly, and her innate goodness of heart was proved by the fact that she soon became a favorite with Mr. and Mrs. Clifford. She never came to the house without bringing flowers to the latter—not only beautiful exotics from the florists, but wreaths of clematis, bunches of meadow-rue from her rambles, and water-lilies and cardinal-flowers from boating excursions up the Moodna Creek—and the secluded invalid enjoyed her brilliant beauty and piquant ways as if she had been a rare flower herself.
Burt had entered on his scheme with the deepest interest and with confident expectations. As time passed, however, he found that he could not pique Amy in the slightest degree; that she rather regarded his interest in Miss Hargrove as the most natural thing in the world, because she was so interesting. Therefore he at last just let himself drift, and was content with the fact that the summer was passing delightfully. That Miss Hargrove's dark eyes sometimes quickened his pulse strangely did not trouble him; it had often been quickened before. When they were alone, and she sang to him in her rich contralto, and he, at her request, added his musical tenor, it seemed perfectly natural that he should bend over her toward the notes in a way that was not the result of near-sightedness. Burt was amenable to other attractions than that of gravitation.
Webb was the only one not blind to the drift of events. While he forbore by word or sign to interfere, he felt that new elements were entering into the problem of the future. He drove the farm and garden work along with a tireless energy against which even Leonard remonstrated. But Webb knew that his most wholesome antidote for suspense and trouble was work, and good for all would come of his remedy. He toiled long hours in the oat harvest. He sowed seed which promised a thousand bushels of turnips. Land foul with weeds, or only half subdued, he sowed with that best of scavenger crops, buckwheat, which was to be plowed under as soon as in blossom. The vegetable and fruit gardens gave him much occupation, also, and the table fairly groaned under the over-abundant supply, while Abram was almost daily despatched to the landing or to neighboring markets with loads of various produce. The rose garden, however, seemed to afford Webb his chief recreation and a place of rest, and the roses in Amy's belt were the wonder and envy of all who saw them. His mother sometimes looked at him curiously, as he still brought to her the finest specimens, and one day she said: "Webb, I never knew even you to be so tireless before. You are growing very thin, and you are certainly going beyond your strength, and—forgive me—you seem restlessly active. Have you any trouble in which mother can help you?"
"You always help me, mother," he said, gently; "but I have no trouble that requires your or any one's attention. I like to be busy, and there is much to do. I am getting the work well along, so that I can take a trip in August, and not leave too much for Leonard to look after."
August came, and with it the promise of drought, but he and his elder brother had provided against it. The young trees had been well mulched while the ground was moist, and deep, thorough cultivation rendered the crops safe unless the rainless period should be of long duration.
Already in the rustling foliage there were whisperings of autumn. The nights grew longer, and were filled with the sounds of insect life. The robins disappeared from about the house, and were haunting distant groves, becoming as wild as they had formerly been domestic. The season of bird song was over for the year. The orioles whistled in a languid and desultory way occasionally, and the smaller warblers sometimes gave utterance to defective strains, but the leaders of the feathered chorus, the thrushes, were silent. The flower-beds flamed with geraniums and salvias, and were gay with gladioli, while Amy and Mrs. Clifford exulted in the extent and variety of their finely quilled and rose-like asters and dahlias. The foliage of the trees had gained its darkest hues, and the days passed, one so like another that nature seemed to be taking a summer siesta.
A FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS
A day in August can be as depressing as a typical one in May is inspiring, or in June entrancing. As the season advanced Nature appeared to be growing languid and faint. There was neither cloud by day nor dew at night. The sun burned rather than vivified the earth, and the grass and herbage withered and shrivelled before its unobstructed rays. The foliage along the roadsides grew dun-colored from the dust, and those who rode or drove on thoroughfares were stifled by the irritating clouds that rose on the slightest provocation. Pleasure could be found only on the unfrequented lanes that led to the mountains or ran along their bases. Even there trees that drew their sustenance from soil spread thinly on the rocks were seen to be dying, their leaves not flushing with autumnal tints, but hanging limp and bleached as if they had exhaled their vital juices. The moss beneath them, that had been softer to the tread than a Persian rug, crumbled into powder under the foot. Alf went to gather huckleberries, but, except in moist and swampy places, found them shrivelled on the bushes. Even the corn leaves began to roll on the uplands, and Leonard shook his head despondingly. Webb's anxieties, however, were of a far deeper character, and he was philosophical enough to average the year's income. If the cows did come home hungry from their pasture, there was abundance of hay and green-corn fodder to carry them through until the skies should become more propitious. Besides, there was an unfailing spring upon the place, and from this a large cask on wheels was often filled, and was then drawn by one of the quiet farm-horses to the best of the flower beds, the young trees, and to such products of the garden as would repay for the expenditure of time and labor. The ground was never sprinkled so that the morning sun of the following day would drink up the moisture, but so deluged that the watering would answer for several days. It was well known that partial watering does only harm. Nature can be greatly assisted at such times, but it must be in accordance with her laws. The grapevine is a plant that can endure an unusual degree of drought, and the fruit will be all the earlier and sweeter for it. An excellent fertilizer for the grape is suds from the laundry, and by filling a wide, shallow basin, hollowed out from the earth around the stems, with this alkaline infusion, the vines were kept in the best condition. The clusters of the earlier varieties were already beginning to color, and the season insured the perfect ripening of those fine old kinds, the Isabella and Catawba, that too often are frost-bitten before they become fit for the table.
Thus it would appear that Nature has compensations for her worst moods—greater compensations than are thought of by many. Drought causes the roots of plants and trees to strike deep, and so extends the range of their feeding-ground, and anchors vegetation of all kinds more firmly in the soil.
Nevertheless, a long dry period is always depressing. The bright green fades out of the landscape, the lawns and grass-plots become brown and sear, the air loses its sweet, refreshing vitality, and is often so charged with smoke from forest-fires, and impalpable dust, that respiration is not agreeable. Apart from considerations of profit and loss, the sympathy of the Clifford household was too deep with Nature to permit the indifference of those whose garden is the market stall and the florist's greenhouse, and to whom vistas in hotel parlors and piazzas are the most attractive.
"It seems to me," Leonard remarked at the dinner-table one day, "that droughts are steadily growing more serious and frequent."
"They are," replied his father. "While I remember a few in early life that were more prolonged than any we have had of late years, they must have resulted from exceptional causes, for we usually had an abundance of rain, and did not suffer as we do now from violent alternations of weather. There was one year when there was scarcely a drop of rain throughout the summer. Potatoes planted in the late spring were found in the autumn dry and unsprouted. But such seasons were exceedingly rare, and now droughts are the rule."
"And the people are chiefly to blame for them," said Webb. "We are suffering from the law of heredity. Our forefathers were compelled to fell the trees to make room for the plow, and now one of the strongest impulses of the average American is to cut down a tree. Our forests, on which a moist climate so largely depends, are treated as if they encumbered the ground. The smoke that we are breathing proves that fires are ravaging to the north and west of us. They should be permitted no more than a fire in the heart of a city. The future of the country depends upon the people becoming sane on this subject. If we will send to the Legislature pot-house politicans who are chiefly interested in keeping up a supply of liquor instead of water, they should be provided with a little primer giving the condition of lands denuded of their forests. There is scarcely anything in their shifty ways, their blind zeal for what the 'deestrict' wants to-day, regardless of coming days, that so irritates me as their stupidity on this subject. A man who votes against the protection of our forests is not fit for the office of road-master. After all, the people are to blame, and their children will pay dear for their ignorance and the spirit which finds expression in the saying, 'After me the deluge'; and there will be flood and drought until every foot of land not adapted to cultivation and pasturage is again covered with trees. Indeed, a great deal of good land should be given up to forests, for then what was cultivated would produce far more than could be obtained from a treeless and therefore rainless country."
"Bravo, Webb!" cried Burt; "we must send you to the Legislature."
"How is the evil to be prevented?" Leonard asked.
"Primarily by instruction and the formation of public opinion. The influence of trees on the climate should be taught in all our schools as thoroughly as the multiplication-table. The national and state governments would then be compelled to look beyond the next election, and to appoint foresters who would have the same power to call out the people to extinguish a forest fire that the sheriff has to collect his posse to put down mob violence. In the long-run fire departments in our forest tracts would be more useful than the same in cities, for, after all, cities depend upon the country and its productiveness. The owners of woodland should be taught the folly of cutting everything before them, and of leaving the refuse brush to become like tinder. The smaller growth should be left to mature, and the brush piled and burned in a way that would not involve the destruction of every sprout and sapling over wide areas. As it is, we are at the mercy of every careless boy, and such vagrants as Lumley used to be before Amy woke him up. It is said—and with truth at times, I fear—that the shiftless mountaineers occasionally start the fires, for a fire means brief high-priced labor for them, and afterward an abundance of whiskey."
Events furnished a practical commentary on Webb's words. Miss Hargrove had come over to spend the night with Amy, and to try some fine old English glees that she had obtained from her city home. They had just adjourned from the supper-table to the piazza when Lumley appeared, hat in hand. He spoke to Leonard, but looked at Amy with a kind of wondering admiration, as if he could not believe that the girl, who looked so fair and delicate in her evening dress, so remote from him and his surroundings, could ever have given him her hand, and spoken as if their humanity had anything in common.
The Cliffords were informed that a fire had broken out on a tract adjoining their own. "City chaps was up there gunning out o' season," Lumley explained, "and wads from their guns must 'a started it."
As there was much wood ranked on the Clifford tract, the matter was serious. Abram and other farm-hands were summoned, and the brothers acted as did the minute-men in the Revolution when the enemy appeared in their vicinity. The young men excused themselves, and bustle and confusion followed. Burt, with a flannel blouse belted tightly around his waist, soon dashed up to the front piazza on his horse, and, flourishing a rake, said, laughingly, "I don't look much like a knight sallying forth to battle-do I?"
"You look as if you could be one if the occasion arose," Miss Hargrove replied.
During the half-jesting badinage that followed Amy stole away. Behind the house Webb was preparing to mount, when a light hand fell on his shoulder. "You will be careful?" said Amy, appealingly. "You don't seem to spare yourself in anything. I dread to have you go up into those darkening mountains."
"Why, Amy," he replied, laughing, "one would think I was going to fight Indians, and you feared for my scalp."
"I am not so young and blind but that I can see that you are quietly half reckless with yourself," she replied; and her tone indicated that she was a little hurt.
"I pledge you my word that I will not be reckless tonight; and, after all, this is but disagreeable, humdrum work that we often have to do. Don't worry, little sister. Burt will be there to watch over me, you know," he added. By the way, where is he? It's time we were off."
"Oh, he's talking romantic nonsense to Miss Hargrove. He won't hurt himself. I wish I was as sure of you, and I wish I had more influence over you. I'm not such a very little sister, even if I don't know enough to talk to you as you would like;" and she left him abruptly.
He mastered a powerful impulse to spring from his horse and call her back. A moment's thought taught him, however, that he could not trust himself then to say a word, and he rode rapidly away.
"I must be misunderstood," he muttered. "That is the best chance for us both, unless—" But be hesitated to put into words the half-formed hope that Miss Hargrove's appearance in the little drama of their lives might change its final scenes. "She's jealous of her friend, at last," he concluded, and this conviction gave him little comfort. Burt soon overtook him, and their ride was comparatively silent, for each was busy with his own thoughts. Lumley was directed to join them at the fire, and then was forgotten by all except Amy, who, by a gentle urgency, induced him to go to the kitchen and get a good supper. Before he departed she slipped a banknote into his hand with which to buy a dress for the baby. Lumley had to pass more than one groggery on his way to the mountains, but the money was as safe in his pocket as it would have been in Amy's.
"I swow! I could say my prayers to her!" he soliloquized, as he hastened through the gathering darkness with his long, swinging stride. "I didn't know there was sich gells. She's never lectured me once, but she jest smiles and looks a feller into bein' a man."
Miss Hargrove had noted Amy's influence over the mountaineer, and she asked for an explanation. Amy, in a very brief, modest way, told of her visits to the wretched cabin, and said, in conclusion: "I feel sorry for poor Lumley. The fact that he is trying to do better, with so much against him, proves what he might have been. That's one of the things that trouble me most, as I begin to think and see a little of life; so many people have no chance worth speaking of."
"The thing that ought to trouble me most is, I suppose, that those who have a chance do so little for such people. Amy," she added, sadly, after a moment's thought, "I've had many triumphs over men, but none like yours; and I feel to-night as if I could give them all to see a man look at me as that poor fellow looked at you. It was the grateful homage of a human soul to whom you had given something that in a dim way was felt to be priceless. The best that I can remember in my pleasure-loving life is that I have not permitted myself selfishly and recklessly to destroy manhood, but I fear no one is the better for having known me."
"You do yourself injustice," said Amy, warmly. "I'm the better and happier for having known you. Papa had a morbid horror of fashionable society, and this accounts for my being so unsophisticated. With all your experience of such society, I have perfect faith in you, and could trust you implicitly."
"Have you truly faith in me?" (and Amy thought she had never seen such depth and power in human eyes as in those of Miss Hargrove, who encircled the young girl with her arm, and looked as if seeking to detect the faintest doubt).
"Yes," said Amy, with quiet emphasis.
Miss Hargrove drew a long breath, and then said: "That little word may do me more good than all the sermons I ever heard. Many would try to be different if others had more faith in them. I think that is the secret of your power over the rough man that has just gone. You recognized the good that was in him, and made him conscious of it. Well, I must try to deserve your trust." Then she stepped out on the dusky piazza, and sighed, as she thought: "It may cost me dear. She seemed troubled at my words to Burt, and stole away as if she were the awkward third person. I may have misjudged her, and she cares for him after all."
Amy went to the piano, and played softly until summoned without by an excited exclamation from her friend. A line of fire was creeping toward them around a lofty highland, and it grew each moment more and more distinct. "Oh, I know from its position that it's drawing near our tract," cried Amy. "If it is so bright to us at this distance, it must be almost terrible to those near by. I suppose they are all up there just in front of it, and Burt is so reckless." She was about to say Webb, but, because of some unrecognized impulse, she did not. The utterance of Burt's name, however, was not lost on Miss Hargrove.
For a long time the girls watched the scene with awe, and each, in imagination, saw an athletic figure begrimed with smoke, and sending out grotesque shadows into the obscurity, as the destroying element was met and fought in ways unknown to them, which, they felt sure, involved danger. Miss Hargrove feared that they both had the same form in mind. She was not a girl to remain long unconscious of her heart's inclinations, and she knew that Burt Clifford had quickened her pulses as no man had ever done before. This very fact made her less judicial, less keen, in her insight. If he was so attractive to her, could Amy be indifferent to him after months of companionship? She had thought that she understood Amy thoroughly, but was beginning to lose faith in her impression. While in some respects Amy was still a child, there were quiet depths in her nature of which the young girl herself was but half conscious. She often lapsed into long reveries. Webb's course troubled her. Never had he been more fraternal in his manner, but apparently she was losing her power to interest him, to lure him away from the material side of life. "I can't keep pace with him," she sighed; "and now that he has learned all about my little range of thoughts and knowledge, he finds that I can be scarcely more to him than Johnnie, whom he pets in much the same spirit that he does me, and then goes to his work or books and forgets us both. He could help me so much, if he only thought it worth his while! I'm sure I'm not contented to be ignorant, and many of the things that he knows so much about interest me most."
Thus each girl was busy with her thoughts, as they sat in the warm summer night and watched the vivid line draw nearer. Mr. Clifford and Maggie came out from time to time, and were evidently disturbed by the unchecked progress of the fire. Alf had gone with his father, and anything like a conflagration so terrified Johnnie that she dared not leave her mother's lighted room.
Suddenly the approaching line grew dim, was broken, and before very long even the last red glow disappeared utterly. "Ah," said Mr. Clifford, rubbing his hands, "they have got the fire under, and I don't believe it reached oar tract."
"How did they put it out so suddenly?" Miss Hargrove asked. "Were they not fighting it all the time?"
"The boys will soon be here, and they can give you a more graphic account than I. Mother is a little excited and troubled, as she always is when her great babies are away on such affairs, so I must ask you to excuse me."
In little more than half an hour a swift gallop was heard, and Burt soon appeared, in the light of the late-rising moon. "It's all out," he exclaimed. "Leonard and Webb propose remaining an hour or two longer, to see that it does not break out again. There's no need of their doing so, for Lumley promised to watch till morning. I'm not fit to be seen. If you'll wait till I put on a little of the aspect of a white man, I'll join you." He had been conscious of a feverish impatience to get back to the ladies, having carefully, even in his thoughts, employed the plural, and he had feared that they might have retired.
Miss Hargrove exclaimed: "How absurd! You wish to go and divest yourself of all picturesqueness! I've seen well-dressed men before, and would much prefer that you should join us as you are. We can then imagine that you are a bandit or a frontiersman, and that your rake was a rifle, which you had used against the Indians. We are impatient to have you tell us how you fought the fire."
He gave but scant attention to Thunder that night, and soon stepped out on the moonlit piazza, his tall, fine figure outlined to perfection in his close-fitting costume.
"You will, indeed, need all your imagination to make anything of our task to-night," he said. "Fighting a mountain fire is the most prosaic of hard work. Suppose the line of fire coming down toward me from where you are sitting." As yet unknown to him, a certain subtile flame was originating in that direction. "We simply begin well in advance of it, so that we may have time to rake a space, extending along the whole front of the fire, clear of leaves and rubbish, and as far as possible to hollow out with hoes a trench through this space. Thus, when the fire comes to this cleared area, there is nothing to burn, and it goes out for want of fuel. Of course, it's rough work, and it must be done rapidly, but you can see that all the heroic elements which you may have associated with our expedition are utterly lacking."
"Well, no matter. Amy and I have had our little romance, and have imagined you charging the line of fire in imminent danger of being strangled with smoke, if nothing worse."
Amy soon heard Maggie bustling about, preparing a midnight lunch for those who would come home hungry as well as weary, and she said that she would go and try to help. To Burt this seemed sufficient reason for her absence, but Miss Hargrove thought, "Perhaps she saw that his eyes were fixed chiefly on me as he gave his description. I wish I knew just how she feels toward him!"
But the temptation to remain in the witching moonlight was too strong to be resisted. His mellow tones were a music that she had never heard before, and her eyes grew lustrous with suppressed feeling, and a happiness to which she was not sure she was entitled. The spell of her beauty was on him also, and the moments flew by unheeded, until Amy was heard playing and singing softly to herself. "She does not join us again!" was Miss Hargrove's mental comment, and with not a little compunction she rose and went into the parlor. Burt lighted a cigar, in the hope that the girls would again join him, but Leonard, Webb, and Alf returned sooner than they were expected, and all speedily sat down to their unseasonable repast. To Amy's surprise, Webb was the liveliest of the party, but he looked gaunt from fatigue—so worn, indeed, that he reminded her of the time when he had returned from Burt's rescue. But there was no such episode as had then occurred before they parted for the night, and to this she now looked back wistfully. He rose before the others, pleaded fatigue, and went to his room.
They all gathered at a late breakfast, and the surface current of family and social life sparkled as if there were no hidden depths and secret thoughts. Amy's manner was not cold toward Webb, but her pride was touched, and her feelings were a little hurt. While disposed to blame herself only that she had not the power to interest him and secure his companionship, as in the past, it was not in human nature to receive with indifference such an apparent hint that he was far beyond her. "It would be more generous in Webb to help than to ignore me because I know so little," she thought. "Very well: I can have a good time with Burt and Gertrude until Webb gets over his hurry and preoccupation;" and with a slight spirit of retaliation she acted as if she thoroughly enjoyed Burt's lively talk.
The young fellow soon made a proposition that caused a general and breezy excitement. "There never was a better time than this for camping out," he said. "The ground is dry, and there is scarcely any dew. I can get two large wall tents. Suppose we go up and spend a few days on our mountain tract? Maggie could chaperon the party, and I've no doubt that Dr. and Mrs. Marvin would join us."
The discussion of the project grew lively. Maggie was inclined to demur. How could she leave the old people and her housekeeping? Mr. and Mrs. Clifford, however, became the strongest advocates of the scheme. They could get along with the servants, they said, and a little outing would do Maggie good. Leonard, who had listened in comparative silence, brought his wife to a decision by saying: "You had better go, Maggie. You will have all the housekeeping you want on the mountain, and I will go back and forth every day and see that all's right. It's not as if you were beyond the reach of home, for you could be here in an hour were there need. Come now, make up your mind for a regular lark. It will do you good."
The children were wild with delight at the prospect, and Miss Hargrove and Amy scarcely less pleased. The latter had furtively watched Webb, who at first could not disguise a little perplexity and trouble at the prospect. But he had thought rapidly, and felt that a refusal to be one of the party might cause embarrassing surmises. Therefore he also soon became zealous in his advocacy of the plan. He felt that circumstances were changing and controlling his action. He had fully resolved on an absence of some weeks, but the prolonged drought and the danger it involved—the Cliffords would lose at least a thousand dollars should a fire sweep over their mountain tract—made it seem wrong for him to leave home until rain insured safety. Moreover, he believed that he detected symptoms in Burt which, with his knowledge of his brother, led to hopes that he could not banish. An occasional expression in Miss Hargrove's dark eyes, also, did not tend to lessen these hopes. "The lack of conventionality incident to a mountain camp," he thought, "may develop matters so rapidly as to remove my suspense. With all Amy's gentleness, she is very sensitive and proud, and Burt cannot go much further with Miss Hargrove without so awakening her pride as to render futile all efforts to retrieve himself. After all, Miss Hargrove, perhaps, would suit him far better than Amy. They are both fond of excitement and society. Why can't we all be happy? At least, if the way were clear, I would try as no man ever tried to win Amy, and I should be no worse off than I am if I failed in the attempt."
These musings were rather remote from his practical words, for he had taken pains to give the impression that their woodland would be far safer for the proposed expedition, and Amy had said, a little satirically, "We are now sure of Webb, since he can combine so much business with pleasure."
He only smiled back in an inscrutable way.
Musk-melons formed one of their breakfast dishes, and Miss Hargrove remarked, "Papa has been exceedingly annoyed by having some of his finest ones stolen."
Burt began laughing, and said: "He should imitate my tactics. Ours were stolen last year, and as they approached maturity, some time since, I put up a notice in large black letters, 'Thieves, take warning: be careful not to steal the poisoned melons.' Hearing a dog bark one night about a week ago, I took a revolver and went out. The moonlight was clear, and there, reading the notice, was a group of ragamuffin boys. Stealing up near them, behind some shrubbery, I fired my pistol in the air, and they fairly tumbled over each other in their haste to escape. We've had no trouble since, I can assure you. I'll drive you home this morning, and, with your father's permission, will put up a similar notice in your garden. We also must make our arrangements for camping promptly. This weather can't last much longer. It surely will not if our mountain experience makes us wish it would;" and, full of his projects, he hastened to harness Thunder to his light top-wagon.
He might have taken the two-seated carriage, and asked Amy to accompany them, but it had not occurred to him to do so, especially as he intended to drive on rapidly to Newburgh to make arrangements for the tents. She felt a little slighted and neglected, and Miss Hargrove saw that she did, but thought that any suggestion of a different arrangement might lead to embarrassment. She began to think, with Webb, that the camping experience would make everything clearer. At any rate, it promised so much unhackneyed pleasure that she resolved to make the most of it, and then decide upon her course. She was politic, and cautioned Burt to say nothing until she had first seen her father, for she was not certain how her stately and conventional mother would regard the affair. She pounced upon Mr. Hargrove in his library, and he knew from her preliminary caresses that some unusual favor was to be asked.
"Come," he said, "you wily little strategist, what do you want now? Half of my kingdom?"
She explained rather incoherently.
His answer was unexpected, for he asked, "Is Mr. Burt Clifford in the parlor?"
"No," she replied, faintly; "he's on the piazza." Then, with unusual animation, she began about the melons. Her father's face softened, and he looked at her a little humorously, for her flushed, handsome face would disarm a Puritan.
"You are seeing a great deal of this young Mr. Clifford," he said.
Her color deepened, and she began, hastily, "Oh, well, papa, I've seen a good deal of a great many gentlemen."
"Come, come, Trurie, no disguises with me. Your old father is not so blind as you think, and I've not lived to my time of life in ignorance of the truth that prevention is better than cure. Whether you are aware of it or not, your eyes have revealed to me a growing interest in Mr. Clifford."
She hid her face upon his shoulder.
"He is a comparatively poor man, I suppose, and while I think him a fine fellow, I've seen in him no great aptness for business. If I saw that he was no more to you than others who have sought your favor, I would not say a word, Trurie, for when you are indifferent you are abundantly able to take care of yourself. I've been expecting this. I knew you would in time meet some one who would have the power to do more than amuse you, and my love, darling, is too deep and vigilant to be blind until it is too late to see. You are merely interested in Mr. Clifford now. You might become more than interested during an experience like the one proposed."
"If I should, papa, am I so poor that I have not even the privilege of a village girl, who can follow her heart?"
"My advice would be," he replied, gently, "that you guide yourself by both reason and your heart. This is our secret council-chamber, and one is speaking to you who has no thought but for your lasting happiness."
She took a chair near him, and looked into his eyes, as she said, thoughtfully and gravely: "I should be both silly and unnatural, did I not recognize your motive and love. I know I am not a child any longer, and should have no excuse for any school-girl or romantic folly. You have always had my confidence; you would have had it in this case as soon as there was anything to tell. I scarcely understand myself as yet, but must admit that I am more interested in Mr. Clifford than in any man I ever met, and, as you said, I also have not reached my time of life without knowing what this may lead to. You married mamma when she was younger than I, and you, too, papa, were 'a comparatively poor man' at the time. I have thought a great deal about it. I know all that wealth and fashionable society can give me, and I tell you honestly, papa, I would rather be the happy wife that Maggie Clifford is than marry any millionaire in New York. There is no need, however, for such serious talk, for there is nothing yet beyond congenial companionship, and—Well," she added, hastily, in memory of Amy, "I don't believe anything will come of it. But I want to go on this expedition. There will probably be two married ladies in the party, and so I don't see that even mamma can object. Best assured I shall never become engaged to any one without your consent; that is," she added, with another of her irresistible caresses, "unless you are very unreasonable, and I become very old."
"Very well, Trurie, you shall go, with your mother's consent, and I think I can insure that. As you say, you are no longer a child." And his thought was, "I have seen enough of life to know that it is best not to be too arbitrary in such matters." After a moment he added, gravely, "You say you have thought. Think a great deal more before you take any steps which may involve all your future."
Burt was growing uneasy on the piazza, and feared that Miss Hargrove might not obtain the consent that she had counted on so confidently. He was a little surprised, also, to find how the glamour faded out of his anticipations at the thought of her absence, but explained his feeling by saying to himself, "She is so bright and full of life, and has so fine a voice, that we should miss her sadly." He was greatly relieved, therefore, when Mr. Hargrove came out and greeted him courteously. Gertrude had been rendered too conscious, by her recent interview, to accompany her father, but she soon appeared, and no one could have imagined that Burt was more to her than an agreeable acquaintance. Mrs. Hargrove gave a reluctant consent, and it was soon settled that they should try to get off on the afternoon of the following day. Burt also included in the invitation young Fred Hargrove, and then drove away elated.
At the dinner-table he announced his success in procuring the tents, and his intention of going for them in the afternoon. At the same time he exhorted Leonard and Maggie to prepare provisions adequate to mountain appetites, adding, "Webb, I suppose, will be too busy to do more than join us at the last moment."
Webb said nothing, but disappeared after dinner. As he was at supper as usual, no questions were asked. Before it was light the next morning Amy thought she heard steps on the stairs, and the rear hall-door shut softly. When finally awaking, she was not sure but that her impression was a dream. As she came down to breakfast Burt greeted her with dismay.
"The tents, that I put on the back piazza, are gone," he said.
"Where is Webb?" was her quick response.
No one had seen him, and it was soon learned that a horse and a strong wagon were also missing.
"Ah, Burt," cried Amy, laughing, "rest assured Webb has stolen a march on you, and taken his own way of retaliation for what you said at the dinner-table yesterday. He was away all the afternoon, too. I believe he has chosen a camping-ground, and the tents are standing on it."
"He should have remembered that others might have some choice in the matter," was the discontented reply.
"If Webb has chosen the camping-ground, you will all be pleased with it," said his mother, quietly. "I think he is merely trying to give a pleasant surprise."
He soon appeared, and explained that, with Lumley's help, he had made some preparations, since any suitable place, with water near, from which there was a fine outlook, would have seemed very rough and uninviting to the ladies unless more work was done than could be accomplished in the afternoon of their arrival.
"Now I think that is very thoughtful of you, Webb," said Amy. "The steps I heard last night were not a dream. At what unearthly hour did you start?"
"Was I so heavy-footed as to disturb you?"
"Oh, no, Webb," she said, with a look of comic distress, in which there was also a little reproach; "it's not your feet that disturb me, but your head. You have stuffed it so full of learning that I am depressed by the emptiness of mine."
He laughed, as he replied, "I hope all your troubles may be quite as imaginary." Then he told Leonard to spend the morning in helping Maggie, who would know best what was needed for even mountain housekeeping, and said that he would see to farm matters, and join them early in the evening. The peaches were ripening, and Amy, from her window, saw that he was taking from the trees all fit to market; also that Abram, under his direction, was busy with the watering-cart. "Words cannot impose upon me," she thought, a little bitterly. "He knows how I long for his companionship, and it's not a little thing to be made to feel that I am scarcely better qualified for it than Johnnie."
Burt galloped over to Dr. Marvin's, who promised to join them, with his wife, on the following day. He had a tent which he had occasionally used in his ornithological pursuits.
At two in the afternoon a merry party started for the hills. All the vehicles on the farm had been impressed into the service to bring up the party, with chairs, cooking-utensils, provisions, bedding, etc. When they reached the ground that Webb had selected, even Burt admitted his pleased surprise. The outlook over the distant river, and a wide area of country dotted with villages, was superb, while to the camp a home-like look had already been given, and the ladies, with many mental encomiums, saw how secluded and inviting an aspect had been imparted to their especial abode. As they came on the scene, Lumley was finishing the construction of a dense screen of evergreen boughs, which surrounded the canvas to the doorway. Not far away an iron pot was slung on a cross-stick in gypsy style, and it was flanked by rock-work fireplaces which Maggie declared were almost equal to a kitchen range. The men's tent was pitched at easy calling distance, and, like that of the ladies, was surrounded by a thick growth of trees, whose shade would be grateful. A little space had been cleared between the two tents for a leaf-canopied dining-hall, and a table of boards improvised. The ground, as far as possible, had been cleared of loose stones and rubbish. Around the fireplace mossy rocks abounded, and were well adapted for picturesque groupings. What touched Amy most was a little flowerbed made of the rich black mould of decayed leaves, in which were some of her favorite flowers, well watered. This did not suggest indifference on the part of Webb. About fifty feet from the tents the mountain shelf sloped off abruptly, and gave the magnificent view that has been mentioned. Even Burt saw how much had been gained by Webb's forethought, and frankly acknowledged it. As it was, they had no more than time to complete the arrangements for the night before the sun's level rays lighted up a scene that was full of joyous activity and bustle. The children's happy voices made the echoes ring, and Fred Hargrove, notwithstanding his city antecedents, yielded with delight to the love of primitive life that exists in every boy's heart. Although he was a few years older than Alf, they had become friendly rivals as incipient sportsmen and naturalists. Amy felt that she was coming close to nature's heart, and the novelty of it all was scarcely less exciting to her than to Johnnie. To little Ned it was a place of wonder and enchantment, and he kept them all in a mild state of terror by his exploring expeditions. At last his father threatened to take him home, and, with this awful punishment before his eyes, he put his thumb in his mouth, perched upon a rock, and philosophically watched the preparations for supper. Maggie was the presiding genius of the occasion, and looked like the light-hearted girl that Leonard had wooed more than a dozen years before. She ordered him around, jested with him, and laughed at him in such a piquant way that Burt declared she was proving herself unfit for the duties of chaperon by getting up a flirtation with her husband. Meanwhile, under her supervision, order was evoked from chaos, and appetizing odors arose from the fireplace.
Miss Hargrove admitted to herself that in all the past she had never known such hours of keen enjoyment, and she was bent on proving that, although a city-bred girl, she could take her part in the work as well as in the fun. Nor were her spirits dampened by the fact that Burt was often at her side, and that Amy did not appear to care. The latter, however, was becoming aware of his deepening interesting in her brilliant friend. As yet she was not sure whether it was more than a good-natured and hospitable effort to make one so recently a stranger at home with them, or a new lapse on his part into a condition of ever-enduring love and constancy—and the smile that followed the thought was not flattering to Burt.
A little before supper was ready Maggie asked him to get a pail of water.
"Come, Miss Gertrude," he said, "and I'll show you the Continental spring at which the Revolutionary soldiers drank more than a hundred years ago;" and she tripped away with him, nothing loth. As they reappeared, flushed and laughing, carrying the pail between them, Amy trilled out,
"Jack and Jill came up the hill."
A moment later, Webb followed them, on horseback, and was greeted with acclamations and overwhelmed with compliments. Miss Hargrove was only too glad of the diversion from herself, for Amy's words had made her absurdly conscious for a society girl.
They feasted through the long twilight. Never had green corn, roasted in its husks on the coals, tasted so delicious, and never before were peaches and cream so ambrosial. Amy made it her care that poor Lumley should feast also, but the smile with which she served him was the sustenance he most craved. Then, as the evening breeze grew chilly, and the night darkened, lanterns were hung in the trees, the fire was replenished, and they sat down, the merriest of merry parties. Even Webb had vowed that he would ignore the past and the future, and make the most of that camp-fire by the wayside of life. It must be admitted, however, that his discovery of Burt and Miss Hargrove alone at the spring had much to do with his resolution. Stories and songs succeeded each other, until Ned was asleep in Maggie's arms, and Johnnie nodding at her side. In reaction from the excitements and fatigues of the day, they all early sought the rest which is never found in such perfection as in a mountain camp. Hemlock boughs formed the mattresses on which their blankets were spread, and soon there were no sounds except the strident chirpings of insects and the calls of night-birds.
There was one perturbed spirit, however, and at last Burt stole out and sat by the dying fire. When the mind is ready for impressions, a very little thing will produce them vividly, and Amy's snatch of song about "Jack and Jill" had awakened Burt at last to a consciousness that he might be carrying his attention to Miss Hargrove too far, in view of his vows and inexorable purpose of constancy. He assured himself that his only object was to have a good time, and enjoy the charming society of his new acquaintance. Of course, he was in love with Amy, and she was all that he could desire. Perhaps he had pursued the wrong tactics. Girls even like Amy were not so unsophisticated as they appeared to be, and he felt that he was profoundly experienced in such questions, if in nothing else. Had not her pride been touched? and would she not be led, by his evident admiration for Miss Hargrove, to believe that he was mercurial and not to be depended upon? He had to admit to himself that some experiences in the past had tended to give him this reputation. "I was only a boy then," he muttered, with a stern compression of the lips. "I'll prove that I am a man now;" and having made this sublime resolution, he slept the sleep of the just.
All who have known the freshness, the elasticity, the mental and physical vigor, with which one springs from a bed of boughs, will envy the camping party's awakening on the following morning. Webb resolved to remain and watch the drift of events, for he was growing almost feverish in his impatience for more definite proof that his hopes were not groundless. But he was doomed to disappointment and increasing doubt. Burt began to show himself a skilful diplomatist. He felt that, perhaps, he had checked himself barely in time to retrieve his fortunes and character with Amy, but he was too adroit to permit any marked change to appear in his manner and action. He said to himself that he cordially liked and admired Miss Hargrove, but he believed that she had enjoyed not a few flirtations, and was not averse to the addition of another to the list. Even his self-complacency had not led him to think that she regarded him in any other light than that of a very agreeable and useful summer friend. He had seen enough of society to be aware that such temporary friendships often border closely on the sentimental, and yet with no apparent trace remaining in after-years. To Amy, however, such affairs would not appear in the same light as they might to Miss Hargrove, and he felt that he had gone far enough. But not for the world would he be guilty of gaucherie, of neglecting Miss Hargrove for ostentatious devotion to Amy. Indeed, he was more pronounced in his admiration than ever, but in many little unobtrusive ways he tried to prove to Amy that she had his deeper thoughts. She, however, was not at this time disposed to dwell upon the subject. His manner merely tended to confirm the view that he, like herself, regarded Miss Hargrove as a charming addition to their circle, and proposed that she should enjoy herself thoroughly while with them. Amy also reproached herself a little that she had doubted him so easily, and felt that he was giving renewed proof of his good sense. He could be true to her, and yet be most agreeable to her friend, and her former acquiescence in the future of his planning remained undisturbed. Webb was more like the brother she wished him to be than he had been for a long time. The little flowerbed was an abiding reassurance, and so the present contained all that she desired.
This was not true of either Webb or Miss Hargrove. The former, however, did not lose heart. He thought he knew Burt too well to give up hope yet. The latter, with all her experience, was puzzled. She speedily became conscious of the absence of a certain warmth and genuineness in Bart's manner and words. The thermometer is not so sensitive to heat and cold as the intuition of a girl like Miss Hargrove to the mental attitude of an admirer, but no one could better hide her thoughts and feelings than she when once upon her guard.
AN OLD TENEMENT
The few remaining days of August passed, and September came, bringing little suggestion of autumn rains or coolness. Dr. and Mrs. Marvin had joined them, and the former's interest in every wild creature of the woods became infectious. Alf and Fred were his ardent disciples, and he rarely found an indifferent listener in Amy. The heat of the day was given up to reading and the fashioning of alpenstocks, and the mornings and late afternoons to excursions. In one of these they had sat down to rest near an immense decaying tree that was hollow in parts, and full of holes from the topmost shattered branches to the ground.
"That," said the doctor, "might fitly be called an old tenement-house. You have no idea how many and various creatures may have found a home in it."
He was immediately urged to enumerate its possible inhabitants in the past, present, and future.
The doctor, pleased with the conceit of regarding the decaying tree in this light, began with animation: "All three of the squirrels of this region have undoubtedly dwelt in it. I scarcely need do more than mention the well-known saucy red or fox squirrel, whose delight is mischief. By the way, we have at home two tame robins that before they could fly were tumbled out of their nest by one of these ruthless practical jokers. The birds come in and out of the house like members of the family. The graceful gray squirrel is scarcely less familiar than the red one. He makes a lively pet, and we have all seen him turning the wheel attached to his cage. The curious little flying-squirrel, however, is a stranger even to those to whom he may be a near neighbor, for the reason that his habits are chiefly nocturnal. He ventures out occasionally on a cloudy day, but is shy and retiring. Thoreau relates an interesting experience with one. He captured it in a decayed hemlock stump, wherein it had a little nest of leaves, bits of bark, and pine needles. It bit viciously at first, and uttered a few 'dry shrieks,' but he carried it home. After it had been in his room a few hours it reluctantly allowed its soft fur to be stroked. He says it had 'very large, prominent black eyes, which gave it an innocent look. In color it was a chestnut ash, inclining to fawn, slightly browned, and white beneath. The under edge of his wings (?) tinged yellow, the upper dark, perhaps black.' He put it into a barrel, and fed it with an apple and shag-bark hickory-nuts. The next morning he carried it back and placed it on the stump from which it had been taken, and it ran up a sapling, from which it skimmed away to a large maple nine feet distant, whose trunk it struck about four feet from the ground. This tree it ascended thirty feet on the opposite side from Thoreau, then, coming into view, it eyed its quondam captor for a moment or two, as much as to say 'good-by.' Then away it went, first raising its head as if choosing its objective point. Thoreau says its progress is more like that of a bird than he had been led to believe from naturalists' accounts, or than he could have imagined possible in a quadruped. Its flight was not a regular descent on a given line. It veered to right and left, avoiding obstructions, passed between branches of trees, and flew horizontally part of the way, landing on the ground at last, over fifty-one feet from the foot of the tree from which it sprang. After its leap, however, it cannot renew its impetus in the air, but must alight and start again. It appears to sail and steer much like a hawk when the latter does not flap its wings. The little striped chipmunk, no doubt, has heaped up its store of nuts in the hole there that opens from the ground into the tree, and the pretty white-footed mouse, with its large eyes and ears, has had its apartment in the decayed recesses that exist in the worm-eaten roots.
"Opossums and raccoons are well-known denizens of trees, and both furnish famous country sports, especially in the South. ''Possum up de gum-tree, cooney in de hollow,' is a line from a negro ditty that touches a deep chord in the African heart. The former is found not infrequently in this region, but the Hudson seems to be the eastern boundary of its habitat."
"I took two from a tree in one night," Burt remarked.
"The raccoon's haunts, however, extend far to the northward, and it is abundant in the regions bordering on the Adirondacks, though not common in the dense pine woods of the interior. They are omnivorous creatures, and often rob nests of eggs and young birds, for they are expert climbers. They are fond of nuts and fruits, and especially of corn when in the condition of a milky pulp. Nor does poultry come amiss. They are also eager fishermen, although they are unable to pursue their prey under water like the otter and mink. They like to play in shallows, and leave no stone unturned in the hope of finding a crawfish under it. If fish have been left in land-locked pools, they are soon devoured. 'Coon-hunting by the light of the harvest-moon has long been one of the most noted of rural sports. During this month the corn kernels are in the most toothsome state for the 'coon bill of fare, and there are few fields near forests where they will not be marauding to-night, for they are essentially night prowlers. A 'coon hunt usually takes place near midnight. Men, with dogs trained to the sport, will repair to a cornfield known to be infested. The feasters are soon tracked and treed, then shot, or else the tree is felled, when such a snarling fight ensues as creates no little excitement. No matter how plucky a cur may be, he finds his match in an old 'coon, and often carries the scars of combat to his dying day.
"If taken when young, raccoons make amusing pets, and become attached to their masters, but they cannot be allowed at large, for they are as mischievous as monkeys. Their curiosity is boundless, and they will pry into everything within reach. Anything, to be beyond their reach, must be under lock and key. They use their forepaws as hands, and will unlatch a door with ease, and soon learn to turn a knob. Alf there could not begin to ravage a pantry like a tame 'coon. They will devour honey, molasses, sugar, pies, cake, bread, butter, milk—anything edible. They will uncover preserve-jars as if Mrs. Leonard had given them lessons, and with the certainty of a toper uncork a bottle and get drunk on its contents."
"No pet 'coons, Alf, if you please," said his mother.
"Raccoons share with Reynard his reputation for cunning," the doctor resumed," and deserve it, but they do not use this trait for self-preservation. They are not suspicious of unusual objects, and, unlike a fox, are easily trapped. They hibernate during the coldest part of the winter, reappearing in the latter part of February or March. They are fond of little excursions, and usually travel in small family parties, taking refuge in hollow trees about daylight. They make their home high up, and prefer a hollow limb to the trunk of a tree. Some of those half-decayed limbs yonder would just suit them. They have their young in April—from four to six—and these little 'coons remain with the mother a year. While young they are fair eating, but grow tough and rank with age.
"Two other interesting animals may have lived in that tree, the least weasel and his sanguinary cousin the ermine, or large weasel. Both are brown, after the snow finally disappears, and both turn white with the first snowstorm."
"Now you are romancing, doctor," cried Miss Hargrove.
"Yes," added Leonard, "tell us that you have caught a weasel asleep, and we will, at least, look credulous; but this turning white with the first snow, and brown as soon as the snow is gone, is a little off color."
"It's true, nevertheless," maintained the doctor, "although I have seen no satisfactory explanation of the changes. They not only make their nests in hollow trees, but in the sides of banks. Were it not for its habit of destroying the eggs and young of birds, the least weasel might be regarded as a wholly useful creature, for it devours innumerable mice, moles, shrews, and insects, and does not attack larger animals or poultry. It is so exceedingly lithe and slender that its prey has no chance to escape. Where a mouse or a mole can go it can go also, and if outrun in the field, it follows the scent of its game like a hound, and is as relentless as fate in its pursuit. They are not very shy, and curiosity speedily overcomes their timidity. Sit down quietly, and they will investigate you with intense interest, and will even approach rather near in order to see better. Dr. Merriam describes one as standing bolt-upright, and eying him, with its head bent at right angles to its slender body. After a brief retreat it made many partial advances toward him, meanwhile constantly sniffing the air in his direction. I've no doubt Dr. Merriam would have liked to know the weasel's opinion. They have two or three litters a year, and the nest is made of dry leaves and herbage. The mother weasel will defend her young at any cost, and never hesitates to sacrifice her life in their behalf. She will fasten herself by her sharp teeth to the nose of a dog, and teach him that weasel-hunting has some drawbacks.
"In its next of kin, the ermine, or large weasel, we have perhaps the most cruel and bloodthirsty animal in existence. It is among mammals what the butcher-bird is among the feathered tribes—an assassin, a beautiful fiend. It would seem that nature reproduces among animals and plants every phase of human character. Was it Nero or Caligula who said, 'Oh, that Rome had but one neck, that I might sever it?' Such is the spirit that animates the ermine. Its instinct to kill is so strong that, were it possible, it would destroy the means of its subsistence. It would leave none of its varied prey alive. The lion and even the man-eating tiger, when gorged, are inert and quiet. They kill no more than they want for a meal; but the ermine will attack a poultry-yard, satiate itself with the brains of the fowls or by sucking their blood, and then, out of 'pure cussedness,' will kill all the rest within reach. Fifty chickens have been destroyed in a night by one of these remorseless little beasts. It makes fearful ravages among grouse, rabbits, and hares. It is the mythical vampire embodied. It is not very much larger than the least weasel, and has the same long, lithe, slender body and neck. A gray squirrel would look bulky beside one, but in indomitable courage and pitiless ferocity I do not think it has an equal. Only a lack of material or bodily fatigue suspends its bloody work, and its life is one long career of carnage. It has a terrific set of teeth, which are worked by most powerful muscles. Dr. Coues, an eminent naturalist, has given a graphic account of him. His words, as I remember them, are a true portrait of a murderer. 'His forehead is low, and nose sharp; his eyes are small, penetrating, cunning, and glitter with an angry green light. His fierce face surmounts a body extraordinarily wiry, lithe, and muscular, which ends in a singularly long, slender neck that can be lifted at right angles with the body. When he is looking around, his neck stretched up, his flat triangular head bent forward, swaying to and fro, we have the image of a serpent.'
"This is a true picture of the ermine when excited or angry; when at rest, and in certain conditions of his fur, there are few more beautiful, harmless, innocent-looking creatures. Let one of the animals on which he preys approach, however, and instantly he becomes a demon. In the economy of nature he often serves a very useful purpose. In many regions field mice are destructive. The ermine is their deadliest foe. A rat will fight a man, if cornered, but it gives up at once in abject terror when confronted by the large weasel. This arch-enemy has a pride in his hunting, and when taking up his quarters in a barn will collect in one place all the rats and mice he kills. Sometimes a hundred or more have been found together as the result of two or three nights' work. The ermine hunts, however, both by day and night, and climbs trees with great facility. He is by no means shy, and one has been known to try to kill chickens in a coop when a man was standing near him. Hunger was not his motive, for he had destroyed dozens of fowls the night before. The ermine has been used successfully as a ferret. Having first filed the creature's teeth down, so that it could not kill the game, a gentleman secured twelve live rabbits in one forenoon.
"But it's getting late, and time we started tentward, and yet I'm not through even the list of quadrupeds that may have dwelt in our old tenement. There are four species of bats to be mentioned, besides moles and shrews, that would burrow in its roots if they are as hollow as the branches. There are thirteen species of birds, including several very interesting families of woodpeckers, that would live in a tree like that, not to speak of tree-toads, salamanders, brown tree-lizards, insects and slugs innumerable, and black-snakes—"
"Snakes?" interrupted Burt, incredulously.
"Yes, snakes. I once put my hand in a hole for high-holders' eggs, and a big black-snake ran down my back, but not inside of my coat, however."
"Please say nothing more about snakes," cried Amy; and she rose decisively, adding, in a low tone: "Come, Gertrude, let us go. The tenants of the old tree that we've heard about may be very interesting to naturalists, but some of them are no more to my taste than the people in the slums of London."
"You have made our blood run cold with horrors—an agreeable sensation, however, to-day," said Burt, also rising. "Your ermine out-Herods Herod. By the way, is not the fur of this pitiless beast worn by the highest dignitaries of the legal profession?" and he hastened after the girls.
"BUT HE RISKED HIS LIFE?"
The days passed, and the novelty of their mountain life began to wane a little. There were agreeable episodes, as, for instance, visits from Mr. Clifford, Mr. Hargrove, and the Rev. Mr. Barkdale, who were entertained in royal style; but, after all, the camping experience was not, apparently, fulfilling the hopes of two of the party. Webb's doubt and suspense had only been increased, and Miss Hargrove was compelled to admit to herself that her father's fears were not groundless. She was the life of the party, and yet she was not at rest. Even in her dreams there was a minor key of trouble and dread. The past few weeks were bringing a revelation. She had read novels innumerable; she had received tender confidences from friends. Love had been declared to her, and she had seen its eloquent pleading in more than one face; but she acknowledged that she had never known the meaning of the word until, without her volition, her own heart revealed to her the mystery. Reason and will might control her action, but she could no more divert her thoughts from Burt Clifford than a flower can turn from the sun. She wondered at herself, and was troubled. She had supposed that the training of society had brought her perfect self-possession, and she had looked forward to a match, when she was ready for one, in which the pros and cons should be weighed with diplomatic nicety; but now that her heart was touched she learned that nature is supreme, and her whole being revolted at such a union as she had contemplated. She saw the basis of true marriage—the glad consent of body and soul, and not a calculation. She watched Maggie closely, and saw that her life was happy and rounded out in spite of her many cares. It was not such a life as she would choose in its detail, and yet it was infinitely better than that of many of her acquaintances. Burt was no hero in her eyes, but he was immensely companionable, and it was a companion, not a hero, or a man remote from her life and interests, that she desired. He was refined and intelligent, if not learned; low, mean traits were conspicuously absent; but, above and beyond all, his mirthful blue eyes, and spirited ways and words, set all her nerves tingling with a delicious exhilaration which she could neither analyze nor control. In brief, the time that her father foresaw had come; the man had appeared who could do more than amuse; her whole nature had made its choice. She could go back to the city, and still in semblance be the beautiful and brilliant girl that she had been; but she knew that in all the future few waking hours would pass without her thoughts reverting to that little mountain terrace, its gleaming canvas, its gypsy-like fire, with a tall, lithe form often reclining at her feet beside it.
Would the future bring more than regretful memories? As time passed, she feared not.
As Burt grew conscious of himself, his pride was deeply touched. He knew that he had been greatly fascinated by Miss Hargrove, and, what was worse, her power had not declined after he had awakened to his danger; but he felt that Amy and all the family would despise him—indeed, that he would despise himself—should he so speedily transfer his allegiance; and under the spur of this dread he made especial, though very unobtrusive, efforts to prove his loyalty to Amy. Therefore Webb had grown despondent, and his absences from the camp were longer and more frequent He pleaded the work of the farm, and the necessity of coping with the fearful drought, so plausibly that Amy felt that she could not complain, but, after all, there was a low voice of protest in her heart. "It's the old trouble," she thought. "The farm interests him far more than I ever can, and even when here his mind is absent."
Thus it may be seen that Nature, to whom they had gone, was not only busy with the mountain and its life, but that her silent forces were also at work in those whose unperverted hearts were not beyond her power.
But there are dark mysteries in Nature, and some of her creations appear to be visible and concentrated evil. The camping party came very near breaking up in a horrible tragedy. The day was growing warm, and they were returning from a rather extended excursion, straggling along a steep wood road that was partially overgrown with bushes. Burt had been a little more attentive to Miss Hargrove than usual, but was now at Amy's side with his ready laugh and jest. Dr. Marvin was in the rear, peering about, as usual, for some object of interest to a naturalist. Miss Hargrove, so far from succumbing to the increasing heat, was reluctant to return, and seemed possessed with what might be almost termed a nervous activity. She had been the most indefatigable climber of the party, and on their return had often diverged from the path to gather a fern or some other sylvan trifle. At one point the ascending path formed an angle with a ledge of rock that made a little platform. At the further end of this she saw a flower, and she went to get it. A moment or two later Burt and Amy heard her scream, and the sound of her voice seemed almost beneath them. Grasping his alpenstock firmly, Burt sprang through the intervening copsewood, and witnessed a scene that he never forgot, though he paused not a second in his horror. Even as he rushed toward her a huge rattlesnake was sending forth the "long, loud, stinging whir" which, as Dr. Holmes says, is "the dreadful sound that nothing which breathes can hear unmoved." Miss Hargrove was looking down upon it, stupefied, paralyzed with terror. Already the reptile was coiling its thick body for the deadly stroke, when Burt's stock fell upon its neck and laid it writhing at the girl's feet. With a flying leap from the rock above he landed on the venomous head, and crushed it with his heel. He had scarcely time to catch Miss Hargrove, when she became apparently a lifeless burden in his arms.
Dr. Marvin now reached him, and after a glance at the scene exclaimed, "Great God! Burt, she was not bitten?"
"No; but let us get away from here. Where there's one of these devils there is usually another not far off;" and they carried the unconscious girl swiftly toward the camp, which fortunately was not far away, all the others following with dread and anxiety in their faces.
Dr. Marvin's and Maggie's efforts soon revived Miss Hargrove, but she had evidently received a very severe nervous shock. When at last Burt was permitted to see her, she gave him her hand with such a look of gratitude, and something more, which she could not then disguise, that his heart began to beat strangely fast. He was so confused that he could only stammer some incoherent words of congratulation; but he half-consciously gave her hand a pressure that left the most delicious pain the young girl had ever known. He was deeply excited, for he had taken a tremendous risk in springing upon a creature that can strike its crooked fangs through the thick leather of a boot, as a New York physician once learned at the cost of his life, when he carelessly sought to rouse with his foot a caged reptile of this kind.
Miss Hargrove had ceased to be a charming summer acquaintance to Burt. She was the woman at whose side he had stood in the presence of death.
Before their midday repast was ready a rumble of wagons was heard coming up the mountain, and Webb soon appeared. "The barometer is falling rapidly," he said, "and father agrees with me that it will be safer for you all to return at once."
He found ready acquiescence, for after the event of the morning the ladies were in haste to depart. Lumley, who had come up with Webb, was sent to take the rattles from the snake, and the men drew apart, with Alf and Fred, to discuss the adventure, for it was tacitly agreed that it would be unwise to talk about snakes to those whose nerves were already unstrung at the thought of such fearful neighbors. Dr. Marvin would have gone with Lumley had not his wife interposed. As it was, he had much to say concerning the habits and character of the reptiles, to which the boys listened with awe. "By the way," he concluded, "I remember a passage from that remarkable story, 'Elsie Venner,' by Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which he gives the most vivid description of the rattlesnake I have ever seen. One of his characters has two of them in a cage. 'The expression of the creatures,' he writes, 'was watchful, still, grave, passionless, fate-like, suggesting a cold malignity which seemed to be waiting for its opportunity. Their awful, deep-cut mouths were sternly closed over long, hollow fangs, which rested their roots against the swollen poison-gland where the venom had been hoarded up ever since the last stroke had emptied it. They never winked, for ophidians have no movable eyelids, but kept up an awful fixed stare. Their eyes did not flash, but shone with a cold, still light. They were of a pale golden color, horrible to look into, with their stony calmness, their pitiless indifference, hardly enlivened by the almost imperceptible vertical slit of the pupil, through which Death seemed to be looking out, like the archer behind the long, narrow loophole in a blank turret wall.' The description is superb, and impressed itself so deeply on my mind that I can always recall it."
The ladies now joined them at dinner—the last at their rustic board. Miss Hargrove was very pale, but she was a spirited girl, and was bent on proving that there was nothing weak or hysterical in her nature. Neither was there the flippancy that a shallow woman might have manifested. She acted like a brave, well-bred lady, whose innate refinement and good sense enabled her speedily to regain her poise, and take her natural place among her friends. They all tried to be considerate, and Amy's solicitude did not indicate the jealousy that her friend almost expected to see.
Before they had finished their repast an east wind was moaning and sighing in the trees, and a thin scud of clouds overcasting the sky. They were soon in the haste and bustle of departure. Miss Hargrove found an opportunity, however, to draw Dr. Marvin aside, and asked, hesitatingly,
"If Burt—if Mr. Clifford had missed his aim when he sprang upon the snake, what would have happened?"
"You had better not dwell on that scene for the present, Miss Hargrove."
"But I wish to know,"" she said, decisively. "I am not a child, and I think I have a right to know."
"Well," said the doctor, gravely, "you are brave about it, and may as well know the truth. Indeed, a little thought would soon make it clear to you that if he had struck the body of the snake and left its head free, it would have bitten him."
She drew a long breath, and said, "I thought as much"; then added, in a low tone, "Would it have been death?"